Ajani Charles has a natural gift, so evident in his earliest photographs as a twelve year-old amateur, was later nurtured during his years in the renowned Claude Watson Arts Program and through many other institutions and mentors.
Reinforced by his training, his talent is blooming today in the more mature professional who has been taking arresting and personality-revealing photographs of Canadian and international artists, performers, athletes, entrepreneurs, and leaders in Toronto and around the globe for the past twelve years, in addition to his work as a director and producer in the marketing and filmmaking worlds.
Over the years, both the critics and general public have admired Ajani’s works shown at a number of exhibitions, and appreciated his several art projects.
Ajani’s career as a photographer is intertwined with his work as an entrepreneur, the founder of a media production company, a businessman with a great sense of social responsibility who charitably supports various causes, especially those related to mental health.
As a Toronto photographer, media professional, and artist, Ajani enriches the city’s cultural and social scene with his work and philanthropic engagement, and will continue to do so for many years to come.
What neighbourhood are you in?
I live in the downtown core of Toronto, somewhat close to Yonge and Dundas Square.
What do you do?
I am a professional photographer, director, and producer with a background in fine arts who specializes in creating impactful stories about the human condition, self-actualization, and mental health.
What are you currently working on?
I have a number of commercial projects that are currently in the works. I am also writing my first book, and I am creating my first physical product and a handful of digital products, however my work schedule and the timelines for many of my projects have changed drastically, due to the COVID-19 pandemic — a world event that has obviously impacted entrepreneurs, artists, businesses, and industries all over the world. The completion timelines for some of my projects are now up in the air, and I will have to temporarily abandon some of them.
A project that was recently completed through my production company is a series of videos featuring one of my meditation teachers Jeff Warren, and the project was produced for Calm, which is the world’s most downloaded sleep and meditation app.
The fact that my media production company is a vendor for Calm is meaningful to me, because the Calm platform educates more people on meditation and effective sleep hygiene than any other tech product available today. I became an ambassador for the Calm brand last year, and the company produced a video on my use of Calm, which I have been told was recently shared at a company retreat, specifically because their product has helped me to cultivate mindfulness within my career and other facets of my life.
For those that are unfamiliar with the term, mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s conscious attention to a single point or various experiences occurring in the present moment. Mindfulness is being here, right now, with no attachment to notions of the past or future.
With that said, mindfulness and mental health are certainly interrelated, and over the course of the last couple of years I have been intensely focused on mental health advocacy, and using photography, filmmaking, writing, my voice, and other forms of art and media to promote mental health issues and research, because I have seen and felt the ways in which various forms of mental illness can destroy the health, well-being, and dignity of individuals, families, and communities around the world.
Coincidentally, mindfulness is needed more than ever before, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, otherwise known as the Coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has led to elevated levels of fear, worry, shame, guilt, paranoia, anxiety, depression, and irrationality amongst billions of people, so I encourage anyone reading this to download and use Calm, and to seek other tools that can help to mitigate stress on a daily-basis. Without my mindfulness practices, this interview would not be possible at this time.
Furthermore, I am a production manager for Operation Prefrontal Cortex, which was co-founded by Julien Christien Lutz, who is professionally known as Director X. Operation Prefrontal Cortex is a program harnessing the power of mindfulness and meditation to help reduce the incidents of gun and mass violence in Toronto. My role within the organization is to work closely with our producer Sara Basso, to shoot and edit photographs and videos, and to manage our social media and other aspects of our digital marketing strategy.
Operation Prefrontal Cortex is currently in the process of raising capital, specifically to launch two of our meditation and mindfulness pilot programs, one of which is for Toronto-based schools, and one of which is for Toronto-based police officers. Our program was recently adopted successfully by a school in Newark, New Jersey, and it has been quite successful in that environment.
I am also a mentor through the Center For Addiction And Mental Health (CAMH) — Canada’s largest and most comprehensive mental health institution. Previously, through CAMH, I engaged with young people experiencing early signs of psychosis through a sports and gym group, which was ideal for me, given my deep interests in psychology, health, weightlifting, sports, and kinesiology. The group was recently disbanded due to the pandemic, so I will have to explore other mentorship opportunities when it is physically safe for me to return to the hospital. I also taught clients various photography-based technical skills and the basics of Adobe Photoshop, while critiquing their work through the Photovoice program at CAMH, and I hope to continue that work as soon as possible.
I have also been presenting a series of lectures through the Toronto District School Board entitled “Mindfulness And Other Crucial Skills That I Never Learned In High School”, specifically designed for high school students.
Through the series of lectures, students are taught the nuances of entrepreneurship, working as an entrepreneur, the future of the global workforce, and how mindfulness can inform and improve mental health and the previously-mentioned areas.
I am grateful for Artscape Daniels Launchpad, as they gave me an opportunity to speak about such topics at the end of 2019, as part of a panel of photographers at Summit — a 2-Day event in Toronto with an emphasis on the organizational, marketing, sales, and technical skills needed to stand out in an increasingly digital world.
Slightly prior to Summit, In November of 2019, I became a journalist for Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global, which is an American company that provides behaviour change technology and media to support individuals struggling with stress and burnout. It was founded by Huffington in August 2016, after she experienced an intense burnout that could have killed her.
So, many of my ideas and interviews will be published through Thrive Global this year, including an interview with Ariel Garten of InteraXon — one of the co-founders behind the Muse meditation headbands, and I also produced a video featuring myself for FreshBooks recently, specifically to help entrepreneurs and small business owners cultivate mindfulness during the Coronavirus pandemic.
My team and I are also in the process of editing a documentary on mental health issues amongst millennials, we are in the pre-production phase of a short documentary on Shaolin martial arts, and with the help of many talented individuals and organizations, I am in the process of completing a project entitled “Project T Dot”, which is a documentary on Toronto’s hip-hop culture and community in its entirety — a project that I began producing in December of 2006, primarily through black and white photography.
“Project T Dot” will record significant moments in the lives of the people who have created Toronto hip-hop, including musicians, dancers, writers, visual artists, educators and entrepreneurs who successfully balance their art with day-to-day routines, which often include full-time jobs, education and community activities. It will also tell the story of Toronto hip-hop between the late 1970s and 2021.
Through a partnership between myself, Manifesto Community Projects, and Christopher Penrose of Watrvision, and since being featured through Complex and Flavorwire, the project will culminate in the publication of a coffee table book, the production of a “Project T Dot” video documentary, the production of a “Project T Dot” digital platform, a “Project T Dot” art exhibit, and a non-profit organization that teaches youth from Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods how to turn their hip-hop art forms into sustainable businesses and non-profit organizations, by the end of 2021, depending on when and how the Coronavirus pandemic will come to an end.
Where can we find your work?